ANKARA: The Turkish government is mulling over opportunities to establish a dialogue channel with the Syrian government, the pro-government Hurriyet newspaper has reported.
Using anonymous sources, the Turkish daily said: “The balanced policy recently followed by Turkey and the role that Ankara has played in recent months, especially in resolving the war in Ukraine, have made the current period suitable for resolving the Syrian crisis.”
According to the report, the bilateral discussions will focus on three key issues: Protection of the unitary structure of the Syrian state against the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), safeguarding the territorial integrity of Syria and allowing the safe return of about half of the Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
There has been no comment yet on the Hurriyet report from either Damascus or Ankara.
Francesco Siccardi, a senior program manager at Carnegie Europe, told Arab News that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seizing a political opportunity with a potential move of rapprochement with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“After presenting himself as the mediator between Russia and Ukraine, he could portray himself as a benevolent leader also in the Syrian scenario. The fact that both initiatives could bear no fruit is secondary to the perception of these posturing that will help him lift his image both at home and abroad,” he said.
The improvement of diplomatic ties with Damascus could also help Ankara reduce the political and economic burden of hosting 3.7 million refugees in Turkey amid skyrocketing inflation and decreasing purchasing power. The economic problems crippling the country are often blamed on the presence of an uncontrolled number of refugees.
According to Siccardi, this initiative could produce excellent gains for Erdogan if a portion of the Syrian refugees currently in Turkey are allowed to return to Syria.
Hurriyet also claimed that Assad’s visit to the UAE last month was seen in Ankara as a show of his willingness to take new initiatives and rally new support as he hopes to stabilize the country.
In the meantime, the normalization of ties between Turkey and Egypt is also on the horizon, with the appointment of a Turkish ambassador in Cairo on Wednesday after nearly nine years.
Experts note that Turkey’s ongoing normalization efforts with the Middle Eastern and Gulf countries will inevitably require resuming relations with Syria.
Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said Turkey regards itself as an increasingly important actor in the crisis diplomacy sphere.
“Turkey has acted as a dialogue facilitator and mediator between Russia and Ukraine, and is now trying to channel that experience to Syria. Assad’s recent visit to the UAE underscores his growing normalization with Arab countries, and despite Turkey’s antipathy toward him, Ankara realizes that Assad is Syria’s only leadership option,” he told Arab News.
According to Ramani, given the fact that Turkey is trying to ease tensions with regional powers, such as the UAE and Egypt, removing Syria as a source of tension serves that agenda.
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Turkey conducted multiple military operations in Syria’s northern part in a bid to fight back against Syrian Kurdish militants that it associates with the PKK.
According to the 1998 Adana memorandum between Syria and Turkey, both parties are required to take necessary measures to remove PKK fighters from the Syria border.
Ankara has deployed thousands of troops in Syria and set up dozens of military outposts and bases there, which Damascus considers a violation of its sovereignty.
The last meeting between Turkey, Russia and Iran under the Astana process was held in December. How Turkey’s potential disagreements with Russia over its pro-Ukrainian neutrality policy will affect dynamics in Syria remain to be seen.
According to Ramani, Turkey has tried to compartmentalize its disagreements with Russia over Ukraine in its engagement with Moscow in Syria.
“Patrols between Russia and Turkey have continued in northern Syria, even as Russian tanks brandish the Z symbol of support for the war which Turkey opposes. Presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin cited Turkey’s ability to engage with Russia in theaters, such as Syria, while disagreeing with its conduct in Ukraine as a model for Western countries to follow,” he said.
As Turkey has not joined Western sanctions against Russia, Ramani does not expect that Moscow will have any objections to dialogue with Ankara in Syria.
“It will welcome talks between Turkey and Assad too,” he said.
For Siccardi, Turkey has much to lose in Syria and a change of the status quo in Idlib could have catastrophic consequences for Ankara.
“More than 3 million civilians have taken refuge there. An Assad regime’s offensive — backed by Moscow — could lead to many people crossing into Turkey, where almost 4 million Syrians have already taken shelter. This would be incredibly damaging for Erdogan, who is working for the safe return home of the better part of the Syrians currently living in Turkey. To prevent this outcome, Turkey will continue to be very careful and protective of its relationship with Moscow.”
Last year, Erdogan raised the specter of a new Turkish military campaign against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. For the moment, such an offensive is not on the domestic agenda.
“But, with an eye on the country’s parliamentary and presidential elections in 2023, any new plan for military operation in Syria will help Erdogan connect with his nationalistic constituencies and drum up support,” Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkey-Russia relations, told Arab News.
“ Last year, Russia did not give Turkey the green light to any plan of a military offensive. But, considering current balances between Russia and the US over the Ukrainian conflict, Russia may push for a military offensive in Syria against Kurdish militants just to draw the US forces into a new turmoil,” he added.
According to Sezer, if the rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus bears fruit before the elections, the repatriation of refugees may take place with some political offsets.
“Damascus can ask Ankara to take back fighters of the Syrian National Army who mostly have Turkish citizenship, and offer its help for the repatriation of Syrian refugees,” he said, adding: “If Turkey takes coordinated steps with the UAE in Syria, it should also align its strategies with Russia.”
Ankara has, in the last four years, maintained low-level contact with Damascus through intelligence agencies.
But in 2019, Erdogan asserted that he would never talk to Assad, “who is responsible for the death of more than 1 million Syrians.”